More Boots & Packs Than Bikes & Maps: Hiking Nebaj to Todos Santos

Things have been taking some surprising turns recently. Before climbing Volcan Santa Maria I had committed myself to a firm plan that would take me down to a farm by Largo Atitlan for a couple of weeks before then quickly pedalling through Honduras and Nicaragua into Costa Rica. Making decisions really doesn’t come easy to me, so it was with a fair amount of relief that I embraced these plans. Then I was hit by a bolt from the blue. Literally minutes after I published my last post I received an email from one of my closest friends declaring that he was unexpectedly between jobs and had got a last-minute flight to Guatemala. By strange coincidence he mentioned that he had hiked with Quetzaltrekkers when in Nicaragua and was keen to do some more hikes with them in Guatemala. Questzaltrekkers had just done a great job taking me up Santa Maria, so the next day I excitedly booked us up for their longest hike, a 6 day, 60km affair from the town of Nebaj, via La Torre (the highest non-volcanic point in Central America), to Todos Santos. So by quirky turn of fate within the space of two days my plans had been turned on their head and I found myself on a bus with my good friend Ben and 12 other folks, heading out for an unexpected multi-day hike.

The location of the hike in relation to Guatemala as a whole

Detail of the Nebaj to Todos Santos hike route

A = Nebaj, B = Acul, C = Xexocom, D = Pauil Pais, E = La Capellania, F = La Ventosa, G = La Torre, H = Todos Santos

Approximate elevation graph for the route

When people ask me what the best part of my journey has been so far I always refer to the 9 days of hiking I enjoyed last year in the Grand Canyon. It’s possibly a bit bizarre that my most positive experience has had nothing to do with cycling, but that’s just how it is. And its happened again after a number of different factors converged to take me on this hike to Todos Santos; a quirky collection of coincidences that rewarded me with another of the most enjoyable experiences of my 21 months on the road. Every piece of the last week has slotted unnervingly together: In Marcy, Mason and Malta we were directed by a group of unbeatably personable and professional of guides. With my good mate Ben to amuse me and 8 other unique characters on board, the group was blessed with an enviable and rare dynamic. It has been a fair while since I’ve giggled uncontrollably, over these 6 days that seemed to be the default state.

This trek was not about adventure, it was not about breaking new ground nor self discovery, instead it was just a whole load of good honest fun. To this point I’ve cycled quite extensively through some of the not so easily accessible parts of Guatemala. I’ve had the privileged to see and experience people and places that are often cut off to more traditional travelers. This hike was therefore not so much about Guatemala for me as it was about the fantastic new friends I made and laughs I had. Here are a few photos to tell the narrative of those 6 days on the trails:


After a quick plod through Xela our journey starts with a chicken bus to Quiche, a town I cycled through on my way into Xela. There we change vehicle, cramming ourselves into a smaller micro bus onto Nebaj.


An evening of good food, creepy choir masters and a sound night sleep in Popies hostel sets us up well.  After a filling pancake breakfast we venture out into the rain and the start of our trek.


It’s in at the deep end as we’re immediately met by a steep and slippery climb…


…on which we encounter a number of local guys going about their everyday business.


Soon the town of Nebaj is but a splodge of color in the valley below. (Rachel & Charlotte)


After topping out our fist pass we drop into the adjoining valley.


Our path takes us down into the small town of Acul, notable for the atrocities it suffered in the civil war.


After a brief stop to pick up some cheese in Acul we get back on the trail which takes us through quiet villages on our way to lunch. (Rachel, Ian & Ben)


But before I can relax into lunch I have a lonely wait for Ben who has managed to lose his wallet. After an exciting car chase he manages to find it and returns with a big grin and good little story.


Satisfied by lunch we set off again, back up into the hills.


The last village quickly drops away behind us…


… as we trudge up…


… and up… (Matteo)


…into the clouds.


As we enter the small village of Xexocom, our home for the night, we’re met by this gorgeous little fella.


After a relaxing steam in a Temescal (a native American sweat lodge) we settle down to a candle lit dinner before bedding down ready for a 4am start.


There is a general feeling of relief amongst the group as a 4am inspection reveals cloud too thick to make an early start beneficial. The hope was to climb out of Xexocom to see the sun rise, instead we stay in our cosy school-house until about 6am.


The cold, wet and foggy climb out of Xexocom proves just too exciting… I struggle to contain my feelings….


… as does Ben.


That feeling soon dies as the leading group are forced to wait for an age in the cold for the slower members. We revert to some early whiskey drinking. (Ian & Rachel)


But the frustration of waiting remains.


On topping out the climb we’re met with a beautiful scene of atmospheric pine trees and rocky outcrops.


We have to wait a total of about 2 hours, time we kill with riddles, laughing at Ben and games of ‘Ninja’. (Matteo, Ben, Ian & Rachel)


Finally the group is complete again and we storm up to the highest point of the climb. (Mason)


With this weather it’s a cold and desolate landscape, but still home to some hardy souls.


A quick group summit photo…


…and we head out through more highland villages onto the altiplano.


The mist and fog really lend themselves to the other worldly feeling of the altiplano.


After a long morning of waiting with a bit of hiking we settle down for a late lunch. Before long we’re joined by the rain and… (Charlotte, ‘Yaniv’, Domonic & Vera)


… a couple of beautiful hungry dogs.


Back on the trail again, Mason, one of our three intrepid guides leads us over the Altiplano. (Mason)


Through the mist we trudge, past a Mayan burial site…


… numerous small farms…


… and makeshift football pitches.


Then finally, as the sun begins to drop, our path takes us down into an impressively grand valley…


… where we spend the night in a K’iche’ village.


After a great deal of effort our resident bushman, Jonathan, manages to get a fire going. After much more effort our token Californian, Matteo, manages to toast his precious marshmallow, celebrating the success by dropping it on the filthy floor.


After a wet night out we pack up early.


Tentatively making our way down slippery mud paths… (Mason)


… deep into the valley…


… and our riverside breakfast spot.


Fed and rested the days hiking begins in earnest with a fun little climb out of the valley. Before long the rain is back with us, forcing the more manly members of the crew to run for cover.


Gradually gaining altitude, the mist thickens and rain continues in sporadic bursts.


The hiking is varied, alternating from heavy forest tracks…


… to open stretches of mystical farmland.


Eventually we’re back on the altiplano and the unpaved road towards lunch in the village of San Nicolas.


A decent feed leads us onto the infamous ‘Hill of Terror’. It’s not too big nor too steep but it is too tempting to race up.


One of the Guatematecan guides can top out the path in 7 and a half minutes. Ian and I do it in 10 minutes 20. But I can’t stop, continuing up to the summit in a time of 13 minutes. Here I am hitting the high point… it’s neither big nor clever, but it was bloody good fun.


Although tempered by heavy skies, the views from the summit are stunning nonetheless.


Descending the other side of the hill we drop into the village of La Capellania and catch a micro bus to our nights lodgings in La Ventosa. Village-leader, Geronimo takes us in and after an extreme dose of Temescal we’re treated to a mashed potato dinner. Matteo and Ian aren’t the only ones feeling the strain…


In the small hot kitchen many of us battle to stay awake as we’re recounted horrifying tales from the civil war. (Me with Ben)


There’s something quite special about 14 people sleeping together in a small room… a night of snoring, farting and in my case, battling rogue bedposts.


La Ventosa is home to this handsome fella, who along with his lady friend (nicknamed ‘Titties’ on account of her particularly saggy udders) join us on our final days of hiking.


The sun rises on a fine clear morning. It is a strange quirk of the area around Todos Santos that all the men wear these red striped trousers.


As we prepare to hike out under a stunning blue sky, one of our guides, Malta, manages to captivate some of the younger members of the village.


Back on the trail, our first task is to scale La Torre, at 12,700 feet, the highest non-volcanic peak in Central America.


The clear views are apt reward for our days of mist and rain.


Unencumbered by slower hikers (who decided to skip the day) and fit from the previous days, we make speedy progress.


As the clouds drop further below us a volcano erupts on the horizon.


Without any undue effects of altitude we all make the summit with ease, celebrations come in the form of a cup of tea and team photo.


The views are truly breathtaking…


But before long our two young local guides are leading us down the mountain.


Our final destination, Todos Santos makes itself apparent in the valley below.


The descent is generally steep and the track slick in places.


But the rock formations and views are magnificent. (Ian)


Matteo takes a moment to enjoy the gorgeous surroundings.


By lunch we have broken the back of the drop…


… and the outskirts of Todos Santos come into view.


On the way into town we pass a couple of new-born lambs… they’re less than two hours old! The remaining after-birth becomes a subject of unhealthy obsession amongst some of the group.


The night in Todos Santos passes far too quickly. We get up at 4am and board our first Chicken bus.


On tight, rough and windy roads it’s a relief when the sun starts to make an appearance.


But the early start is rewarded as we hit Huehuetenango in good time. With the help of Marcy, our leading guide, we transfer onto another bus to Xela.


All goes to plan and we’re left just a pleasant morning stroll through Xela back to Quetzaltrekkers HQ.

On arrival back in Xela the nucleus of our hiking crew; Ian, Matteo, Rachel, Ben, Jonathan and Charlotte all check into Casa Argentina, the hostel within which Quetzaltrekkers operate. With our appetites wetted and a full moon hanging in the night sky our adventures together are far from over. It will turn out that the events of this week on the trail and subsequent happenings have combined to change my immediate future and the course of this little adventure I’m on. But more on that later…


3 responses to “More Boots & Packs Than Bikes & Maps: Hiking Nebaj to Todos Santos

  1. 1st of all, that Ian guy… super cute, bring him back as a souvenir for me! Thanks
    2nd of all…. the last time you giggled so much….. im thinking foodstock ’09 (in 2010, of course!)
    3rd… those pics ROCK!! what an awesome hike!

  2. Nice post mate. That was some vigilant photo journalism….a brillantly laid out account of our intrepid hiking group. Have a great time in Hondo! GET SOME!

  3. Pingback: Many Happy Returns « Velo Freedom – Cycling South·

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